The most highly anticipated start of the Mariners’ spring takes place Saturday when right-hander Taijuan Walker faces hitters — albeit minor-league hitters — for the first time.
“There’s your news,” manager Lloyd McClendon said Friday at his daily news briefing prior to the night game against San Diego at Peoria Stadium. “Take it and run with it.
“He will not throw more than 30 pitches. Ideally, we’d like to see him go two innings. We’ll see how it goes. It’s a minor-league game. We can control it.”
It marks the latest step for Walker, 21, in his recovery from a sore shoulder that earlier this month prompted a seven-day shutdown from all throwing.
“I’m pumped,” he said. “When they told me they were going to get me in a game for 30 pitches, I said, 'I’ll take it.’ Fastballs and change-ups only.
“I want to go out there and work on location. Go about 80-85 percent. Try to keep it around there.”
The Mariners continue to hedge regarding a recovery timetable for Walker, but he seems unlikely to be ready for regular duty, even under an optimum scenario, before mid-to-late April.
Walker projected as a near-certainty to win a rotation spot before experiencing persistent soreness through early workouts. A Feb. 27 visit to a shoulder specialist in Los Angeles confirmed bursitis in Walker’s shoulder.
That led to a one-week ban from all throwing activities.
Walker reported no renewed soreness once he resumed throwing by playing catch, then long toss and throwing three bullpen workouts of increasing intensity and duration.
“Everything feels great,” he said. “This is a big test. I don’t want to go out and blow it out, but it’s going to be tough holding it back.”
Baseball America ranked Walker as the Mariners’ top prospect and at No. 11 overall in late February. He made his big-league debut last year by going 1-0 in three starts while allowing six earned runs in 15 innings.
GAME, SET MATCH: IWAKUMA
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma continued his comeback by throwing a ball for the first time since being diagnosed Feb. 10 with a strained ligament in his middle finger.
“I threw about 40-45 balls with a tennis ball inside the weight room,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “It felt good. No pain. Better range of motion. So far, so good.”
Iwakuma’s rehab plan calls for three days of throwing a tennis ball before switching to a baseball as a preliminary step after more than five weeks of simulating throws by gripping a towel while going through his delivery.
He said he made throws starting from 25 feet and extending to 50 feet.
Barring setbacks, Iwakuma should make a rapid recovery, although he is likely to require three-plus weeks to build his endurance to the 90-100 pitches typically required from a starting pitcher.
“I’m happy that he’s back out and starting to be active again,” McClendon said. “But it’s going to take a little while. We just need to get him moving forward.”
PRYOR ALSO SLOTTED
Reliever Stephen Pryor will also make his spring debut Saturday in a minor-league game in his recovery from a torn back muscle — specifically, a tear in his right latissimus dorsi muscle.
Pryor, 24, is scheduled for 20 pitches, which marks his first game action since July 31, when he gave up five runs without retiring a batter while pitching for Triple-A Tacoma on a rehab assignment.
He underwent surgery on Aug. 9.
Pryor opened the last season by making seven scoreless major-league appearances before the torn muscle forced him to the disabled list following an April 14 outing against Texas.
The Mariners promoted a minor-league manager to the big-league coaching staff for the second time in two weeks by selecting Chris Prieto to serve as their quality-control coach.
Prieto, 41, will serve as a bridge between the advance-scouting staff and the on-field coaching staff. He had been the manager at Lo-A Clinton after guiding Rookie-level Pulaski to the 2013 Appalachian League crown.
“He will coordinate with the statistical analysis department,” McClendon said. “He will be the liaison between that department and our coaching staff. Making sure that our scouting reports are right on.”
No replacement was announced for Prieto at Clinton.
The Mariners promoted Tacoma manager Rich Donnelly on March 7 to serve as third-base coach after John Stearns resigned to aid his recovery from hernia surgery.